Friday, August 5, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

2011, Joe Johnston

One of the main problems I have with the bulk of the superhero movies in recent years is the decided lack of singular vision. These films are generally the product of a committee, written, re-written, scrapped and written again, the input of multiple producers and writers, studio heads and license holders all taken into account. Take a film like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, Bryan Singer's X-Men (or even Superman Returns), Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy or Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and you see films that had someone shepherding the entire thing, from the story and the characters to the look and feel. The results may not be always terrific but at least there's typically a thorough consistency to the film itself. Recent endeavors, from Spider-Man 3 to Iron Man 2 to Thor feel far more disjointed, as if there's not actually a story to tell, but instead a presence that needs to be put on screen to make money from (and moreover, not to make money from ticket sales but instead from merchandising).

Captain America: The First Avenger is probably the least offensive and most engaging of these products, but it still never quite feels like it's truly its own vehicle... and by title alone, "The First Avenger", it's not, given that an Avengers movie is slated for the Summer 2012 and a preview for which is featured after the credits. While much of the fun of DC and Marvel comic books is the "shared world" concept of a larger picture to consider, I'm not certain it's an effective avenue for film, where tens- if not hundreds- of millions are spent on producing films over a two to three year span. Comics come out monthly, some heroes having more than one title... there's ample time for them to cross bridges with other characters and books. It makes less sense in film, as screen time is far more limited and precious, and it's easily wasted by diversion into aspects irrelevant to the plot.

The main story of Captain America takes place during World War II, and can be explained rather simply (because his origin has always been able to fit on a one-page recap) as Steve Rogers, a 98-pound weakling volunteered to test a super-soldier serum, thus making him an enhanced human, stronger and faster than any other man. He becomes a symbol for America's war effort, and eventually a hero on the battlefield. During one mission Rogers is apparently killed, falling to his death from a missile / plane in the arctic, but he's frozen, found and revived many years later, a man out of time, but ever the hero.

The film follows these rhythms, but is primarily contained in the early 1940's wartime setting with only a prologue and epilogue in the modern day. Rogers is played by Chris Evans (his face digitally transposed and hollowed out onto a skinny actor's body rather flawlessly, only on the slightest occasion even remotely triggering an uncanny valley reflex). His time as his scrawnier self is surprisingly lengthy, the film takes its time in establishing Rogers' character as patriotic, courageous, resourceful, and determined with a big heart without being precious or corny, but beyond those initial scenes, once he becomes Captain America, he's really not very present as a character, the film seems instead more focused on establishing the icon. I don't recall Evans saying anything of any real importance while wearing the costume. That's all well and good, but why can't it be both. The film avoids the "getting used to the changes" routine standard for many superhero stories, but at the same time avoids getting into the mind of the character.

As a result, as the film progresses Captain America and his relationships with the other characters have little weight. The romantic tension between Rogers and Peggy Carter never materializes, just sort of chastely simmers. Steve's friendship with James "Bucky" Barnes is twisted from its comic book origins where Steve is more like Bucky's sidekick to start, but the reverse never actually happens because their relationship is never developed any further. Though they feature strongly as background players, the Howling Commandos are never named as such, nor are any of the individual members - not even the Nick Fury stand-in or the striking handlebar moustache-and-bowler hat Dum Dum Duggan - referred to by name, ever. They are there as part of the "Marvel Universe" world building, as is Howard Stark, Tony "Iron Man" Stark's resourceful father (and the derelict World's Fair that featured prominently in the finale of Iron Man 2 is shown here in its glory in the 1940's), and overt references to Thor's mythology. It would all be fine if it were handled more naturally, as if they were actual integral parts to the story and not just overt references/nods/winks to other movies and comic geek wankery.

The Red Skull/Hydra story is quite nicely woven into the World War II setting, even if it plays in a very similar vein to a Justice League (animated) story line where the JL travels back to World War II to stop Hitler usurper Vandal Savage, in both story as well as in its deco design.

The design of the film is quite nice overall, even if it's not always filmed so spectacularly (there's a fuzziness to the 1940's New York, that I guess is supposed to reflect the soft-focus lenses of the era, but moreover gives it the sense of poor CGI). The sets and costuming have an old-school adventure feel to them, a feeling that threatens to permeate the entire movie but either Johnston never committed to it or there was too much interference to permit it having that singular vision of an adventure serial.

I've never had much love for the character, a patriotic symbol for a country that isn't mine, and a superhero whose personality always seemed rather...non-existent (so maybe they did get it right in the film?) but I was okay with this film. It's far from perfect and it could have been better in many ways, but it has its charms as well, so it's not a total loss.